Lese-Majeste in Thailand

Thailand goes into 2012 facing strains that could well lead to renewed tension later this year, primarily over the harsh application by the government of the country’s lèse-majesté laws, designed to prevent criticism of the royalty.

Those strains are exacerbated by the fact that the secession question has dragged on for more than two years. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has spent that period in an apartment in Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, having left briefly in December to deliver his 84th birthday address, appearing so desperately frail that questions over the secession grow more urgent all the time and are a major reason for the use of lèse-majesté against even the mildest critics. He is expected to be succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom many including those inside the Privy Council privately believe is unfit to lead the country, according to US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks in 2011.

Waiting in the wings is Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was deposed in 2006 and later forced to flee the country in the face of corruption charges. A deeply divisive figure, Thaksin has orchestrated politics inside the country ever since, with his surrogate governments thwarted in the pro-royalist courts before a third one, headed by his sister, Yingluck Shinwawatra, won a substantial electoral vehicle last July, with the help of the rural Red Shirts who turned out in the millions to vote for the now-ruling Pheu Thai Party. Last year the government awarded him a Thai passport to replace the ones he was using that were granted by Montenegro and Nicaragua. He has appeared in countries on Thailand's borders -- Myanmar and Cambodia -- to the irritation of those who would like to see him back in jail.

Public outrage put paid to a clumsy attempt to pardon Thaksin late last year through including criteria for his crimes to make him a candidate for the king's annual pardon list. The Yellow Shirt royalists of the People's Alliance for Democracy, however, threatened to take to the streets if the pardon went through. Chalerm Yoobamrung, the thuggish deputy prime minister who dreamed up the scheme, was forced to withdraw the name.

Many of the rural Red Shirts who turned out in the millions to vote for the now-ruling Pheu Thai Party – feel betrayed by the party, its leader, Yingluck and Thaksin, who is considered to be the real force behind it Pheu Thai over the issue of lèse-majesté. However, the leaders of the Red Shirts, United for Democracy Against Dictatorship, appear fractionalized and more anxious to protect Yingluck against royalist criticism than willing to fight against lèse-majesté and increasing repression that is being carried out by her government. Political Prisoners in Thailand, a website, estimates that more than 300 people remain in jail on charges of either lèse-majesté or computer crimes.

Certainly, instead of what was initially regarded as a force to increase access to democracy, the Pheu Thai government has aligned itself with the royalists who sought to keep them from power in the years after Thaksin was ousted from the premiership. The Pheu Thai government, which came into office in July 2011, has not moved to free hundreds of Red Shirt political prisoners. They remain behind bars since the army, backed by the then-Democrat government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva cracked down brutally on demonstrations in May of 2010. More than 90 people were killed, most of them Red Shirts. As many as 40 buildings in central Bangkok were torched.

Gen.Thanasak Patimaprakorn, who is very close to Queen Sirikit and is considered a royalist, has been appointed the military's supreme commander. The general who led the charge against the Red Shirts, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, remains in power and in fact appears to have become an ally of Yingluck Shinawatra’s, touring flooded areas during the gigantic floods that covered much of central Thailand in more than 2 meters of water.

If anything, political repression has increased, particularly through the use of the lèse-majesté law and of a second, the Computer Crimes Act, which gives the government the power to charge users of the Internet with offenses relating to alleged insults to the monarchy.

As 2011 wore on, it began to appear that the broad use of the lèse-majesté law, including the jailing of an obviously-bewildered 62-year-old grandfather, was beginning to rankle the electorate. For the first time, protest rallies have been held against the use of the law, which reportedly is of serious concern to government leaders. Some sources in Bangkok say the lèse-majesté situation could explode into serious protest at some point during 2012.

About the best reformers appear able to hope for is an amendment that would cut the time served for lèse-majesté to seven years. Even that, however, is problematical, since authorities have piled additional sentences for other "crimes" onto the lese majesty charges so that its victims are ordered into prison for years beyond the limits of the lèse-majesté charges.

Hopes at the time of the Pheu Thai national electoral victory for meaningful constitutional change also appear to be glimmering at best. Talk of a new Constitutional Drafting Assembly seems to be fading as well, with the party splitting into factions. One would prefer to push the changes through the parliament rather than having a formal constitutional assembly, given Pheu Thai's strong majority.

One thing is certain, however. Section 291, the section of the 2007 charter put in place by the military that prescribes lèse-majesté, is highly unlikely to be dropped, as reformers want. It could be modified, but the big concern is that when the draft is pushed through the parliament it will not be lèse-majesté that preoccupies the Pheu Thai lawmakers. The parliament is also working on a measure to pardon the Red Shirts who remain in jail 18 months after the demonstrations in Bangkok as well as the Yellow Shirts who haven't been jailed. It is believed that the bill will include criteria to allow for Thaksin's return. The legislation might be passed by Parliament before the middle of the year. If that were to happen, it would almost certainly be a prescription for a return to the violence that characterized the last five years.